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Court News Ohio

Shifting Burden of Proof of Self-Defense to Prosecution Applies to All Future Trials

A change in state law shifting the burden of proof to the prosecution when self-defense is claimed by a criminal defendant applies to all trials beginning after March 28, 2019, even when the alleged offenses occurred before the law’s effective date, the Supreme Court of Ohio ruled today.

The Supreme Court unanimously reversed two lower court decisions that a Richland County woman, Ladasia Brooks, had the burden to prove her claim of self-defense. She was charged for several crimes related to a 2018 altercation with her ex-boyfriend that caused him serious injury. The Court was divided 4-3, however, on the reasoning for its holding.

Lawmakers amended Ohio’s self-defense statute, R.C. 2901.05, to apply to all trials occurring on or after its March 2019 effective date. The Court’s decision today reverses a Fifth District Court of Appeals decision that applied the changed burden of proof only to offenses charged after the effective date. The appellate court held that deciding otherwise violates the Ohio Constitution’s prohibition on passing laws that are retroactive.

Writing for the Court majority, Justice Jennifer Brunner stated that shifting the burden to the prosecutor does not violate “Ohio’s Retroactivity Clause nor the United States Constitution’s Ex Post Facto Clause,” because the change is prospective and, even when applied to cases in which the underlying conduct predates the effective date of the statute, it reduces, rather than increases, the burden on criminal defendants.

Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justices Michael P. Donnelly and Melody Stewart joined Justice Brunner’s opinion.

In a concurring opinion, Justice R. Patrick DeWine wrote that it was unnecessary to consider whether the law violated the retroactivity clause because it is a rule regarding court procedure. He added the ex post facto clause of the federal constitution was not violated because the change benefits defendants.

Justices Sharon L. Kennedy and Patrick F. Fischer joined the concurring opinion.

Confrontation Leads to Criminal Charge
Ladasia Brooks and Dan Myers had a child together. But the two were no longer in a relationship when Brooks confronted Myers at his mother’s home in Mansfield where he was living in June 2018. The two have conflicting accounts of what happened, but Brooks was indicted in September 2018 for several crimes including aggravated burglary, burglary, and assault for allegedly entering Myers’ mother’s house, attacking him and a woman who was sleeping in his bed, and causing property damage during the altercation.

Brooks claimed she had permission to be in the house to retrieve money to pay for their daughter’s birthday celebration and that she acted in self-defense against Myers and his stepfather, who restrained and struck her.

The case proceeded to a jury trial in October 2019. Before closing arguments, the trial court discussed the jury instructions with Brooks’ attorney and the county prosecutor. The trial court judge acknowledged that the self-defense statute had been amended between the date that the alleged offenses occurred and the date of the trial. After discussing the issue with the lawyers, the trial court decided to use the version of R.C. 2901.05 that was in effect at the time Brooks’ alleged offenses. The judge instructed the jury that Brooks bore the burden of proving she acted in self-defense.

The jury convicted Brooks, and she was sentenced to seven years in prison. Brooks appealed to the Fifth District, which affirmed her conviction. The Fifth District ruled that the trial court appropriately used the version of self-defense law in effect at the time of the altercation. The Fifth District acknowledged its interpretation of the self-defense law was in conflict with a Twelfth District Court of Appeals decision.

Brooks appealed the Fifth District’s decision to the Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case and to consider the conflict between the appellate courts.

Retroactive Claims Analyzed
The trial court and Fifth District agreed with the prosecutor’s claim that the federal and state constitutions required using the version of the law in effect at the time of the offenses. The office argued that Ohio’s prohibition on enacting laws retroactively meant the burden of proof could not shift to the prosecutor under the new law, because that was not the law when Brooks was charged. The prosecutor also argued the federal constitution’s ex post facto clause requires courts to follow the trial rules and procedures in place at the time of the offense, and shifting the burden to the prosecution would violate that provision.

Justice Brunner explained that Article II, Section 28 states the General Assembly has no power to pass retroactive laws. However, the Court has held that, under certain circumstances, the legislature can pass laws that affect conduct before their effective date, depending on whether the change is considered “substantive” or “remedial.” Substantive laws create or change existing rights, according to Court precedent. Remedial laws provide a method to enforce an existing law. The majority opinion explained that laws relating to “procedures — rules of practice, courses of procedure, and methods of review — are ordinarily remedial in nature.”

The majority recognized that shifting the burden of proof is a procedural matter and remedial even though it may carry with it substantive effects, making it difficult to neatly categorize. Justice Brunner explained that the burden-shifting amendment applied prospectively, such that trials occurring after its effective date may address alleged crimes that took place before the trial.

Supreme Court Examined Ex Post Facto Clause
The federal ex post facto clause -- Article I, Section 10 of the U.S. Constitution -- prohibits the enactment of laws that retroactively punish criminal behavior. Ohio’s constitutional prohibition against retroactive laws also arguably includes a similar prohibition, the opinion stated. The Court observed that the U.S. Supreme Court has described four categories of prohibited ex post facto laws, one of which is “[e]very law that alters the legal rules of evidence, and receives less, or different, testimony, than the law required at the time of the commission of the offence, in order to convict the offender.”

The prosecutor had argued that applying the amended version of the self-defense law to Brooks’ case would violate the ex post facto clause because the new law altered evidentiary procedures in place at the time of the offense in order to convict Brooks.

In cases where the law was changed and increased the burden on the defendant, the Court has ruled the amendment to be an ex post facto law, the opinion noted. But in cases where the change benefits the defendant, it is not prohibited. Shifting the burden to the prosecution to prove Brooks was not acting in self-defense benefitted Brooks, the opinion stated. And as such, applying the change did not violate the federal or state constitutions, the Court concluded.

Appellate Court Must Examine Self-Defense Claim
The prosecutor argued to the Supreme Court that Brooks was not allowed to raise a claim of self-defense to charges of aggravated burglary or burglary. The Court stated it ruled today only on the issue of whether the prosecution had the burden of proving she did not act in self-defense. The Court remanded the case to the Fifth District to determine if Brooks could claim self-defense.

Law Applies to All Trials After Effective Date, Concurrence Maintained
Justice DeWine wrote separately to explain that contrary to the majority’s analysis “the real question before this court has little to do with retroactivity.”  The amended law applies prospectively to Brooks’ trial because it “explicitly ties the new rule to the time of trial” and is a rule of procedure.

Justice DeWine added that a change in law that favors the defendant does not violate the Ex Post Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

2020-1189 and 2020-1250. State v. Brooks, Slip Opinion No. 2022-Ohio-2478.

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